Friday, March 13, 2009
Sonoma IT vs Sonoma Sun
Sonoma Valley newspaper war heats up
Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat Sonoma Valley Sun and The Sonoma Index-Tribune
By STEVE HART
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Friday, March 13, 2009 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 5:42 p.m.
Newspapers may be going the way of the dinosaur, but you’d never know it in Sonoma Valley, where two community papers compete every week for readers and ads.
The Sonoma Index-Tribune has covered the valley for 130 years, under the same family’s ownership for most of that time.
But it faces a challenge from the upstart Sonoma Valley Sun, a free weekly launched in 2004.
Like many newspapers — including The Press Democrat — both papers are feeling the pinch of the economic downturn. The I-T has lost some subscribers and advertising is down, particularly in real estate.
Late last year, the I-T closed its commercial printing business, and it is now printed by The Press Democrat.
The Sun has problems too. The paper has laid off a chunk of its staff and this week reduced publication from two days a week to one.
Is Sonoma Valley big enough to support two newspapers?
“I don’t know if it’s big enough to support one,” joked I-T publisher Bill Lynch, whose great grandfather purchased the business in 1884.
Still, both newspapers vow to fight on.
“We want to continue serving our readers,” said Sun publisher Bill Hammett. “The Sun is a very popular paper with a fresh outlook.”
It’s too soon to write the obituary for small papers, the I-T’s Lynch said.
“Most community newspapers are doing a lot better than the daily papers are,” he said. “We’re holding our own.”
Sonoma Valley’s print rivalry heated up recently when four of the Sun’s former columnists joined the I-T.
“We didn’t go after them,” said Lynch, who publishes the paper with his brother Jim. “They either left on their own or were forced out.”
The I-T’s hiring of ex-Sun staffers shows his newspaper is having an impact, Hammett said.
“It’s a compliment as far as we are concerned,” he said. “They wish they had what we had.”
Hammett, a former school board member who owns a Sonoma engineering firm, started the Sun because he saw demand for more local news, he said.
“There was clearly a need for more thorough news coverage of what was going on in the community,” Hammett said.
Hammett also heads a Sonoma nonprofit, CommonBond Foundation, that licenses the valley’s only radio and TV stations. His small-town media conglomerate has grown to include a Spanish-language monthly, two lifestyle magazines, a video production company and a Web site.
The multi-channel approach promised better coverage of Sonoma Valley’s rich cultural life, said Kathleen Hill, a Sonoma food and travel writer who freelanced for the Sun.
“There was such excitement and optimism,” said Hill, who now writes for the I-T.
At the time, the I-T was “in the doldrums,” she said, and the Sun’s lively coverage was a welcome contrast. Late last year, the Sun began publishing twice a week, on the same schedule as the I-T.
“They were making a bold move to capture market share,” said Daedalus Howell, a former Sun contributing editor who now writes for the I—T.
The I-T didn’t ignore the challenge, Lynch said.
“It made us a lot more aware that competition can come from any quarter,” he said.
The I-T never ceded its role in reporting Sonoma Valley news and it hasn’t lost any ads to the Sun, he said.
“We have never stopped covering the full range of activities, from hard news to features to people to schools to sports,” Lynch said. The I-T also has a Web site, magazine and other print products.
About 15,000 copies of the Sun are delivered free to Sonoma Valley residents. Based on an independent audit, the Sun has more readers than the I-T, Hammett said.
Not so, Lynch said. In the I-T’s own independent survey, “we came out on top,” he said. The I-T has about 8,000 paid subscribers.
Neither publisher would say whether their newspaper is making a profit.
Last week, the Sun said it would return to publishing one day a week, citing the struggling economy and a drop in advertising.
There were four layoffs in editorial and production departments, said Stephanie Dunn, the Sun’s president.
Several others were fired or left, said Hill, who resigned her post at the Sun.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” she said.
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